(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Late at night, Lonnie Bannon of Horseman, Pass By would sit on top of his windmill and gaze off at the lights of Thalia, the small town that McMurtry describes in his third book, The Last Picture Show. There are more people in Thalia than on Lonnie’s ranch, but they are equally lonely. People in Thalia in the early 1950’s are caught between the dying countryside and the frightening pull of such booming cities as Dallas and Houston. Many people in Thalia had moved in from surrounding ranches (as the McMurtrys had moved to Archer City). Feeling under siege by the strange ways of the steadily encroaching urban United States, they impose their old ways on the town and try to crush any signs of nonconformity.

The story focuses on Sonny Crawford and his friend Duane Moore. It opens as the boys finish their last high school football game and continues over the following year as they search for a new path for themselves. Sam the Lion, once a rancher, now owns the town’s movie theater, pool hall, and café. He acts as a father-surrogate for Sonny and Duane, and for other boys in need, including Billy, the mentally retarded boy that Sam took in and reared. Billy sweeps out Sam’s businesses. If someone does not stop him, he sweeps to the edge of town and on into the empty countryside, as mindlessly occupied as the rest of the townspeople are as they go about their lives.

Duane dates the town beauty, Jacy Farrow, the daughter of oil-rich Lois and Gene Farrow. Jacy is a narcissistic, selfish young woman whose sense of self depends on the admiration and envy of others. She dates Duane only because he is a handsome high school athlete.

The story focuses mainly on Sonny, an innocent young man much like Lonnie Bannon. During this year, Sonny is initiated into manhood through a sexual relationship with Ruth Popper and through the death of Sam the Lion. Ruth...

(The entire section is 778 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Last Picture Show is a frank, vivid, and at times broadly satiric portrayal of rural Texas in transition. At the time of the action, both Sonny Crawford and his friend Duane Moore are prematurely emancipated high school seniors, living together in a rooming house and supporting themselves through part-time jobs, though each boy has one living parent. Most of their free time, such as it is, is spent in one or another of the establishments owned by an elderly patriarch known as Sam the Lion— the pool hall, movie house (“picture show”), or café. On weekends, the boys inconveniently share Sonny’s old pickup truck for their dates, Duane with the rich, alluring Jacy Farrow and Sonny with the plainer, foul-tempered Charlene Duggs. As the girls’ names would imply, McMurtry leaves little doubt that life in a town such as Thalia is never far removed from the barnyard, an impression underscored by the name and occupation of Sonny’s initial employer, a bottled-gas dealer named Frank Fartley. The true action of the novel begins early when Sonny, somewhat to his own surprise, decides that he really does not like Charlene and impulsively breaks up with her on the first anniversary of their steady dating. Thereafter, the novel traces the steep contours of Sonny’s “sentimental education” against the temporal backdrop of irreversible changes occurring in the town of Thalia.

Once he has broken up with Charlene, Sonny is known to be “available”—not only to other women but also to experience in general. Soon thereafter, he falls into an unlikely liaison with Ruth Popper, the shy, neglected wife of the high school football coach. Ruth is both able and willing to teach Sonny about more than sex and love, but the difference in their ages continues to loom between them. Duane, meanwhile, remains attached to Jacy Farrow, little suspecting that Jacy plans to drop him as soon as she has made the right connections, with a moneyed, high-living, nude-bathing young crowd in nearby Wichita Falls. It is Jacy’s mobility—and volatility—that will keep both Sonny and Duane off-balance, precipitating the novel’s principal crises.

Life in Thalia, meanwhile, keeps changing in response to...

(The entire section is 908 words.)